American Progress

John Gast’s painting, “American Progress”, illustrates many depictions of the early movement and development of the United States. This particular painting defines uniqueness and character throughout. Looking at it geographically the angel portrayed in the middle is floating westward as though she is exemplifying the Westward Expansion. She has the “Star of Empire” imprinted on her forehead, which better portrays the idea of her trying to move westward.
This painting is a great description of our country’s economical progress and expansion. Gast artistically explains the present day United States as nice cities along rivers with big buildings and churches along the right edge of this painting. This scene is also shown as being happy and awakening because of the bright sun rays being shown down upon it. The city is supposed to represent a growing city along the mighty Mississippi River. You are able to see the evolution of transportation through boats and railroads.
The three main intercontinental railways are shown departing from this city, and the beautiful angel in the middle is carrying the telegraph cable which eventually linked the nation together. She is also carrying with her some type school book, which to me represents intellectual ideas being spread throughout the country. In the background behind her lies many rolling hills and plush green grass. There is not many trees in this portrait, but the snow capped mountains on the left and the great plains on the right depict a great deal of land diversity from coast to coast.

There are also many cattle, Indians, wild horses, bears, and other wild game trying to flee her approach towards the west and eventually into the storms and waves of the Pacific coast. Although she seems very divine in appearance some may take her intentions as revolting. Her central idea seems as though she is trying to spread the economical progress throughout the entire United States. Emotionally this is a very strong painting because of its detail and significance. When I first looked at this painting it made me think of Manifest Destiny.
The angel in the middle attempting to emigrate westward defines the meaning of manifest destiny. Many thought it was God’s belief that the United States would expand from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast. I also felt another tie to my previous assumption when I noticed the star on her forehead. I felt it had great importance so I began to acknowledge her surroundings and I realized it was the “Star of Empire”, which signifies westward movement as well. The star is a bright golden color, almost identical to rays of light being exposed upon new land.
She is wearing a long, swaying white robe which is also significant because the color white signifies freedom. Her bright golden, blonde hair also signifies the presence of God to me. Her presence in this painting is not just for beauty but for great importance. I have always felt strongly about the spread of equality throughout our nation, and to me it seems as though she is trying to spread the superior life-style across the United States. The book in her arm represents that she is trying to spread intelligence and the teaching of literacy.
It was very rare in the past for many people to be able to both read and write, and with the spread of civilization trying to take place it is very important that she also spread the gift of teaching. I also believe that she is trying to spread the connection of communication throughout the country by carrying the telegraph cord in her other hand. This became a very important facet of our country, because many of the connections and deals made over time would not have been made possible without communication.
When I looked more towards the left side of the painting I noticed it was very dark and gloomy. Coincidently that happened to be the way everyone was fleeing, which in my mind represents everyone trying to escape freedom and return to normalcy among themselves. These men, women, and animals look as though they are afraid of the angel hovering over them, but ideally they are trying to escape normal civilization. This painting portrays many different themes and central ideas depending on which way it is observed.
I feel from my point of view that I was able to interpret that the theme is based on moving forward in society. As seen on the right side of this portrait, the eastern United States progressed sooner than the west, and many frontiersmen are afraid of this new lifestyle. It seems as though the angel is trying to help everyone move forward and develop a new way of living and become more acquainted with this innovative way of living. No one copes very well with change, and like-wise neither did the Indians, farmers, and all of the other wild animals.
These individuals had to manage survival with whatever nature skills they had. The mountainous region on the left side of the painting is covered with dark, rainy clouds and white snow caps. This symbolizes harsh climates and bad conditions for any type of living. Some of the animals may not be used to the western climates and may not be able to adapt quickly enough before facing the edge of extinction. The angel present in the center of the painting is able to help spread this central idea of moving on by her presence and what she brings with her.
The coloration of her long, curly hair exemplifies traits from Jesus Christ. Her intentions are as His would be, and that is to create happiness and equality throughout. The gleaming star on her forehead also ties into the main theme through the concept of Manifest Destiny. I believe the star has the most significance of any object in the painting when referring to the main theme. The principle of the star represents the same significance as the main theme; people are trying to move forward in society.
This entire painting depicts the importance of this exploration to the western United States. Everything is explained in perfect artistic form from the bright, sunshiny city on the right to the dark, gloomy coast on the left. The depiction of the angel in the middle is obviously the most important characteristic of this painting, but she also brings a lot of debate for whether or not she is subsiding good or bad influence on our country. There are many details and translations that can be looked at from many different angles depending on the person’s train of thought.
I have explained in every detail the way I feel about this painting and the way I sensed each direction of the artist’s feelings. John Gast has a great connotation of each perception in his painting, and uses many features to depict different portions of his famous artwork. Many great Americans can agree with the central concept of this painting and will be able to grasp the implications behind each item portrayed in the painting. I personally feel that this painting is well thought out and had great meaning behind each aspect.

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